Growing New Roots

Through gardening, Tucson refugees can heal and adjust to their new home

Kirti Ghimire is planting for winter.

On a bright autumn Saturday, he tugs on the pull cord of a gas-powered tiller. When it finally rattles to life, he forces the blades into the hard earth. Clods of dirt churn into coarse soil, and he leaves a small cloud of dust in his wake as he propels the tiller down his 20-foot garden plot in midtown Tucson.

In his native Bhutan, the 55-year-old would be tilling the farm for winter with an ox and a plow, not sputtering machinery. But when you live in an apartment on 29th Street and Columbus Boulevard, owning livestock is out of the question.

Through a community-gardening initiative by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), he can plant and harvest once again. The IRC is an international resettlement and humanitarian-aid agency founded in 1933. Tucson's New Roots program links refugee gardeners with nearby garden plots associated with the Community Gardens of Tucson.

Nationally, there are 22 IRC resettlement offices, half of which have New Roots programs. The first one sprung up in San Diego in 2007, and it has since become a national IRC program to promote better nutrition and encourage wider communities to interact with refugees.

The sliding glass door of Ghimire's apartment leads to a fenced dirt tract. It's not large enough to qualify as a yard.

The plant nearest to the door grows from a faux terra-cotta pot. Its green leaves and delicate light purple flowers emit a basil-like scent.

"It has great value and great importance," said Ghimire in his native Nepali, through a translator. Each morning, Ghimire plucks a few leaves from the tulsi plant, utters words of prayer and casts the offering toward several black river stones nestled in a cabinet shrine inside the apartment.

Around the world, devout Hindus will do the same. They believe both the plant and the river stones embody one of their gods, Lord Vishnu. The stones are from the River Gandaki, in Nepal, and Ghimire locks the cabinet during the day for safekeeping.

In addition to the tulsi, a collection of marigolds and vegetable plants sprout from cardboard boxes lined with plastic.

"I don't like to sit idly," Ghimire said. However, the motley collection of plants doesn't begin to compare to the four acres of land he farmed in Bhutan.

He learned to farm from his parents and diligently sowed his fields with a variety of cash crops, fruits and vegetables. Ghimire was also a shop owner with two stores in Galephu, a small town on the Bhutanese-India border.

In the summer of 1992, Ghimire was closing up his shop. As he walked home, Bhutanese government police assaulted him. They wielded the butts of their rifles, striking him until he fell to the ground, unconscious.

"When I woke up, there was no voice in my throat. I could feel the blood coming from two sides of my ears," Ghimire said, touching the hearing aids he now wears to compensate for the damage.

"I was innocent," he said.

In that year, the Bhutanese government expelled thousands of Bhutanese with Nepali heritage. Ghimire and his father were both born in Bhutan. He believes his grandfather was the first to move from Nepal to Bhutan.

The government promised Ghimire money for his land, but he never saw a single ngultrum, the Bhutanese form of currency.

Two months after the incident, Ghimire and his family packed up their two-story house, taking only a few pieces of jewelry and minimal luggage to avoid attracting too much attention. They traveled by rented truck to a refugee camp in Goldhap, Jhapa, Nepal. Six months later, overcrowding forced them to another camp.

"When I left Bhutan, I cried from my heart, because this is the motherland, and I'm going to leave the motherland," Ghimire said.

In Bhutan, Ghimire's family shared a two-story house, and he had plans to begin building a second home. At the refugee camp, bamboo poles made up walls and the roof of the cramped house his family shared. The food that government-aid organizations offered was meager and not enough to feed his four brothers, parents, wife, daughters and son.

"I used to go sometimes east, sometimes west, sometimes north, sometimes south to work to sustain my family's dinners," said Ghimire. "... As a refugee, I was homeless, jobless, property-less, everything. Nobody was going to respect me."

Bhutanese refugees often faced discrimination from the local Nepali people when they went to buy goods. Ghimire said people would brandish axes and call out rude names.

Ghimire had been living in the camps for more than 15 years when rumors of resettlement swept through. At first, he was skeptical about moving. He wondered how he would work and support his family in a land where he couldn't even speak the native language.

The immigration process meant a new beginning in the United States, but also the end to a family structure he had known his whole life.

"We are five brothers," Ghimire said, "We used to live under one roof. Now (we're in) in Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Australia."

He filed his immigration papers in December 2008. As he prepared to leave, he packed the sacred stones among his luggage. He knew that immigration officials would confiscate the tulsi plant if he tried to bring it, so he tucked a few seeds between the pages of a notebook.

"Wherever I go, and whenever I reach there, I find a bucket and plant it," said Ghimire of the tulsi plant.

In 2009, more than 900 Bhutanese refugees arrived in Arizona, including Ghimire. It is the largest number in one year since 1984. The same year, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) awarded a $330,000 grant to provide intensive case management for local survivors of torture.

The grant ensured the refugees' medical needs were addressed and that they had access to therapy, said Aaron Grigg, the manager of the IRC Tucson's Center for Well-Being.

Locally, a group of eight Bhutanese men, including Ghimire, began meeting for weekly group-therapy sessions.

"He (Grigg) listened to our feelings, our intention and our views," Ghimire said. "I don't feel upset to express my feelings."

After a year of processing their experiences, agriculture emerged as a common theme.

"For generations, they had the same land," Grigg said. "When somebody has been in one place for such a long time, that place is a part of them."

Grigg reached out to the Community Gardens of Tucson executive director Gene Zonge, who had been trying to facilitate a refugee-based community-gardening program for more than a year. Together, they established four plots in a garden behind a residential home in El Presidio.

"There's just something universal about guys and power tools," Grigg said of their first outings to the gardens. The gas-powered tiller never failed to bring an eager grin to the men's faces.

The group supplemented their weekly meetings with bi-monthly trips to the garden. For the first six months, they would process their thoughts and feelings after each session.

"Now we're at the point where we don't necessarily process; we just go and have a good time," Grigg said.

Their spring and summer harvests have yielded everything from cantaloupe to squash, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and beans. January 2013 will mark the two-year anniversary of their first planting.

The connection with the IRC opened the door for other Bhutanese families. Now, they claim almost 50 garden plots in three locations.

"The gardeners only have to supply their own plants and seeds, and their labor and enthusiasm," said Zonge.

The funding for the core group of Bhutanese men came from the initial grant, and the Community Gardens have subsidized the cost for the rest of the refugee gardeners out of their general budget. However, the money they have set aside will run out in January, and many of the refugees do not have the means to foot the bill, Zonge said.

Grigg estimates the IRC could sustain the gardens of 60 families, including purchasing seeds and fertilizer, for $8,400. They are applying for grants and would like to receive funding from the ORR. Grigg also hopes that individuals will invest in the project so they don't have to rely on temporary grants.

The gardens can build a sense of community, not only within the refugee groups, but also with the larger Tucson community, Grigg said.

"When you go to do something like gardening together, you're working on a common goal together," Grigg said.

The IRC is conducting focus groups with all of the current farmers to see what tools, supplies and seeds they would like to see in the future. Eventually, Grigg believes that the gardens could become self-sustaining, and refugees would be able to grow enough to take their excess to a farmers' market or sell it to a food bank.

"It's an area with a lot of potential. Grigg said. "With refugees, there's nowhere to go but up."

On another sunny fall morning, the air is beginning to warm. Ghimire bends to check the progress of his plot at the Nottinghill Apartments. The prickly fuzz on the broad green leaves of the pumpkin plants catches the sun.

Elsewhere, oval-shaped leaves, smaller than a pinky nail, are just emerging from the soil. In a few months, the leaves will be dark-green spinach and ready to harvest. Ghimire prefers his own produce to that of any grocery store.

"I really like to work in the garden. When I plant by myself, it is fresh," Ghimire said. "I get the taste that I got in Bhutan, the same taste when I pluck from my garden."

At home, he shows off a handful of seeds: lima beans, cilantro, spinach and dill. He hopes that his family will join him in the community garden plot so they can work together.

He already has one follower. When Ghimire tends to his makeshift apartment garden, he is often shadowed by Sugan, his 1-year-old grandson, who was born in the U.S. Ghimire knows that he can preserve their cultural traditions by teaching through example.

"When I plot, he plots. When I plant, he plants," Ghimire said. When his grandson asks where the chilies come from, Ghimire will tell him how he would pluck them from the same type of plant in Bhutan.

"If I neglect my son, if I neglect my daughters, they will soon forget," Ghimire said. "If I help them to remember our country is Bhutan, and I had four acres of land ... if I explain ... and guide them in a good manner, they can remember."